How do you make sure your fiancé is serious? On many of the islands of eastern Indonesia, instead of exchanging engagement rings, men traditionally gave earrings to the women they wished to marry. These functioned as both a promise and a down payment on larger gift exchange at the time of the wedding. In much of Indonesia, a groom’s family’s gifts of metal objects (weapons, jewelry) were traditionally counterbalanced with the bride’s family’s gifts of textiles. Examples of jewelry used in these kinds of exchanges are now on view (until November 24, 2013) in the Southeast Asia galleries of the museum.
The shapes of the earrings in island Southeast Asia could often evoke fertility. In one example from the Indonesian island of Flores said to depict the womb of the ancestral mother. The split oval shape of the gold earrings from Tanimbar and Sumba are compared to the shape of female genitalia.
Enormous silver earrings from the island of Sumatra were worn through the upper lobe of a Karo Batak woman’s ear and then anchored to the cloth of her headdress. With a weight of over a pound each, these heavy earrings are worn with one spiral end facing the front of the face and the other facing the rear. Ethnologists report that one local explanation of this style was that they represented ups and downs of married life.